Experts say dreams are an important part of sleep. Here’s why.
You fall asleep one night wondering what to do for your science project. You have to tell your teacher the next day, but you don’t have any ideas. The next morning, you open your eyes and, aha! You’ve thought of a project, but you’re not sure how you came up with it.
According to health experts, the answer likely came to you in a dream. “Dreams are a way for our brains to process memories and information from the day and try to make sense of them,” says Dr. Robert Stickgold, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School who studies dreams.
Although we don’t remember most of our dreams, experts say everyone dreams each time they sleep. Studies of brain activity during sleep show that dreams tend to occur every 90 minutes during rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep.
Research has found that dreaming can help us do all sorts of things. One is recall memories. In a study done in 2010, Stickgold had people work on a computer maze, then either nap or stay awake for an hour. When the people tried the maze again, those who’d stayed awake took longer to find the labyrinth’s exit than they did the first time they attempted to solve the maze. Meanwhile, those who had slept found the exit more quickly than they did the first time they tried the maze.
Stickgold has since found similar results for a dozen more tasks. “Somehow, ‘sleeping on it’ seems to improve your performance,” he says.
Dreaming can also help people solve problems. “We continue to think about all of the same things that we do when we’re awake, but the visual and emotional areas of the brain are more active,” says Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep. “That’s why dreams often allow us to think outside the box and present us with some approach we hadn’t thought of.”
At least two Nobel Prizes have resulted, in part, from dreams. Chemist Friedrich Kekulé discovered the structure of the benzene (an organic chemical) ring after he saw it in a dream. Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev dreamed of the periodic table. There are countless other examples of people getting ideas and solving personal problems through dreams.
Though you’ll enjoy the benefits of dreams even if you can’t recall them, there are ways you can influence and remember them. First, get enough sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers get at least 8½ hours of sleep each night.
As you fall asleep, think of a problem you’re stuck on and tell yourself you would like to dream about it. When you wake up, says Stickgold, “without opening your eyes or moving, try to stay half asleep and see if you can remember your dreams.” Then write them down.